December 13 in Literary History: Samuel Johnson Dies

The most significant events in the history of books on the 13th of December

1784: Samuel Johnson dies. Among the books he planned to write, but died before he got a chance to undertake them, Dr Johnson listed a cookbook set out ‘upon philosophical principles’ and a history of his melancholy. He did, of course, manage to complete his groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language (1755), a book that is often very funny, as well as being informative, scholarly, and educational. However, it was not without its errors – ‘pastern‘ being one of the words Johnson got wrong (people weren’t about to Johnsonlet him forget about his mistake either). He also misread the word ‘soupe’ in William Camden’s ‘Britannia’, and erroneously included the word ‘foupe’ in his Dictionary. He also included ‘Ponk’, defined as a ‘nocturnal spirit’, thanks to a misprint of ‘pouke’ in an Edmund Spenser poem (from ‘Pucke’, like the sprite from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). We’ve catalogued some other oddities and funny stories relating to Johnson’s Dictionary in our previous post comprising some interesting facts about Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary.

1797: Heinrich Heine is born. This German poet once observed that wherever books are burned, people are burned, too, in the end. His words turned out to be prophetic, as his own books would be burnt by the Nazis during the 1930s.

1942: Howard Brenton is born. This English playwright and screenwriter has translated Brecht’s plays (e.g. Life of Galileo), adapted Shakespeare’s (e.g. Measure for Measure), and written some critically acclaimed plays of his own (e.g. Christie in Love). He has written screenplays and scripts for TV shows including the popular BBC spy drama Spooks.

Image: Detail of a portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds, Wikimedia Commons.

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